Tag Archives: China

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised


Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Findings from research on mobile use amongst marginalised groups in China


I spent five weeks this summer undertaking research in Beijing and Gansu thanks to a UK-China Fellowship for Excellence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  The central purpose of my research was to explore the information and communication needs of poor and marginalised communities, especially people with disabilities (in Beijing) and farmers in rural areas (in Gansu Province).  I learnt so much – and probably more from the informal discussions than I did from the  focus groups and interviews that I conducted!  Many thanks are due to Professor Ding Wenguang and Chen Fei for all of their help and assistance in arranging meetings, and translating our dialogues.

The premises underlying my research were that:

  • all too often, new software and hardware are designed for the mass market, and then need to be ‘adapted’ to suit the ‘needs’ of poor and marginalised people
  • frequently, well-intentioned new technologies are developed in some of the richer parts of the world and then ‘applied’ in poorer countries; researchers are then surprised that there is little take up for their products
  • hence, we still need to get a much better understanding of the needs of these communities, and focus much more on designing technologies explicitly with their interests in mind
  • China has 18% of the world’s population, and so the market size of marginalised communities makes it worth developing products commercially for them

The resultant data are so rich that it is difficult to summarise them in detail.  However, the following seem particularly pertinent

Rural areas

  • The diversity of people and communities in rural areas of China is replicated in a diversity of needs.  ‘One size fits all’ solutions are not appropriate, yet the size of the market for particular groups is nevertheless very large given China’s overall population
  • Almost everyone already has at least one mobile ‘phone – mobiles are already widely used for information and communication, even for Internet access.  There are real implications for Africa – if electricity and connectivity can be provided
  • Economic information is particularly desired – especially on such things as agricultural input prices and market prices – particularly by men.  I was surprised at how dominant and significant this was.
  • There seem to be important gender differences in usage – women placed greater emphasis on social communication and health information; young male migrant workers in contrast seemed dominated by a desire to use mobile broadband to meet with girls.
  • Value for money is important – c. RMB 2-3 per month is all that most people are willing to pay for subscription services
  • Trust of source of information is also very important – there seems to be a lot of bogus messaging – and differing views as to what kind of organisation was most trustworthy.
  • There is real potential for village level training in effective use of mobiles – especially by women for women
  • For many users, the existing functionality of mobiles is more than they can cope with

Disabilities

  • There is huge potential for innovative hardware and software solutions – many interesting ideas were proposed
  • There is therefore a large opportunity for sharing good global practice with colleagues in China in the use of ICTs for people with disabilities in China
  • Information about location and direction is crucial for blind people – we need to think more innovatively about how to deliver on this
  • Screen size and configuration (not touch screen) are very important for blind people – Blackberry wins out over iPhones here!
  • There is an enormous opportunity for audio books (not only for blind people). Perhaps a civil society organisation could develop this, and even market audio books to generate income.
  • Security code challenges are important for blind people
  • Shopping information – much potential for RFID and 2D bar codes for blind people.
  • A powerful text scanner and reader in a mobile phone for blind people would be useful
  • Visualisation and touch/vibration of sound could also be developed further

There is a huge agenda ahead, and I am enthusiastic about ways in which we can encourage delivery on some of these exciting opportunities.  Thanks so much to BIS, Lanzhou University and Peking University for supporting this research, and to all those who contributed through their wisdom and hospitality

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Filed under 'phones, China, ICT4D

Dongsi Jiutiao – hostel and red dining


One of the pleasures of Beijing is the opportunity to explore its numerous hutongs – narrow streets surrounded by low rise courtyard buildings, known as siheyuan.  As most guidebooks say, many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for new high-rise development, but some still retain their traditional character, and others have been redeveloped specifically with the tourist in mind.  Traditionally, hutongs were 9 metre wide streets, with some dating from as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341), and until the middle of the 20th century they provided the basic residential areas of most of Beijing.

Following a day exploring Ditan Park, the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, we wandered south to have dinner at the Red Capital Club on Dongsi Jiutiao, which had been recommended by friends.  Everyone says it is difficult to find, but that was not our experience. Head south from the Zhangzizhonglu subway station and take the first hutong (Dongsi Jiutiao) immediately to the east (left as you head south!).  The Red Capital Club is then about 400 metres along on the south side of the road.

Anyway, we arrived too early, and decided simply to wander on to see if there might be anywhere we could sit down for a cold Tsingtao beer.  A short distance on, to the north of the road, we came across an amazing find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel at 51 Dongsi Jiutiao (note this is at a different location from the hostel mentioned on their website!  Phone: +86 (10) 84021970).  Although we only sat in the bar, we looked into the rooms which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as dorms sleeping 6 people (RMB 90), they also had double rooms at only RMB 300 a night – amazing value for August (although the advertised rate was RMB 498).  The bar itself was in the centre of the courtyard, full of comfortable chairs, and served a good range of beverages – the beer was definitely cold and refreshing! Its WiFi service was particularly popular – and people from many different nationalities were logging on to their emails and Internet!  All in all, we reckoned that it would be a great place to stay for those on a limited budget.

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The Red Capital Club itself was also definitely an ‘interesting’ experience.  It is intended to reflect the life of the ruling elite in China in the 1950s.  As its website comments, “The immaculately restored compound captures the mood of the 1950s when China was driven by idealism. The lounge cigar divan is like stepping into Mao’s private meeting room. The furnishings were originally used by the central government in the 1950s. Two sofas next to lounge door were actually used by Marshal Lin Biao (Mao’s fated successor who lost out in an attempted coup). A poem of Mao’s adorns one wall and a photograph of Deng taken by his daughter and presented to the club another”.  The decor is now a little faded, and the food quite expensive, but it was definitely worth the visit.  They even had a bottle of Marsanne from the Caves de Tain in the Rhône Valley – which tasted remarkably good (although that could have been related to the fact that it was the first white wine I had tasted for almost a month!).

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Exploring Wuwei


Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of my assistant Chen Fei’s family, we were introduced over the last couple of days to the fascinating diversity of the area in the vicinity of Wuwei, in north-west central Gansu.  The city is situated along the Hexi corridor, leading westwards into central Asia, and has been subject to numerous cultural influences.  We had a kaleidoscope of experiences, including visiting the tomb where the famous bronze galloping horse treading on a flying swallow was found, wandering around the Confucius temple in Wuwei, walking in the desert at the edge of the city, learning all about how to serve and drink different types of Chinese tea, and then finishing up walking in the mountains near Tianzhu and being entertained by Tibetan dancers over lunch.  It was a brilliant time, and owed everything to the generosity of our hosts.

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Arrival in Lanzhou


We arrived in Lanzhou  from Beijing last night.  What a difference from my last visit almost exactly six years ago!  The Yellow River remains the same, but the number of high rise buildings and the amount of traffic are vastly increased.  Two dinners and a lunch later, the food has been wonderful – thanks so much to the generous hospitality of our hosts.  Today was relatively relaxed before we go out into the field on Monday – an opportunity to see some of the efforts of the local government to beautify the banks of the river: reconstructions of the old waterwheels, Longyuan park dedicated to dragon culture, statues of traditional folk stories, and a new wetland park full of beautiful flowers and walkways through the rushes.

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Top Ten Tips for International Visitors to the Peking University (北京大學) campus


When I was planning on visiting Peking University (also know as Beida, an abbreviation for Beijing Daxue the pinyin for Peking University 北京大學) I searched on the Internet for advice and guidance – and found really rather little of help.

So, having been here for five weeks, I thought it might be useful to offer some simple tips for visitors from abroad so that they can start to enjoy themselves as much as I have done:

  1. The campus is approximately rectangular with the main gates in the middle of the east, south and west sides.  It is a haven of relative peace and quiet, amidst the noise and bustle of modern Beijing. Note that the pedestrian (northerly – illustrated) and vehicular (southerly) gates on the west side are separate, and there is a further pedestrian gate at the south-west corner.  Remember to take your campus card with you when you go off campus, so that you can get back in past security without any problems!  It takes about 15 minutes walk to cross the campus from west to east.
  2. Food: there are numerous different food outlets across the campus – for most of which you need a pre-charged card to purchase meals.  The largest, with the widest diversity of food is situated at A on the map below – but it can be noisy, and is definitely not the place for a quiet chat. If you don’t speak much Chinese, there is a self-service counter on the ground floor, and so it is very simple to choose the food one wants, and pay with your charge-card. One of my favourite places to buy delicious take away bing (a combination of a pancake and an omlette) is at B (illustrated).  ‘International-style’ breakfasts are available at C, as part of the Shao Yuan campus hotel complex.
  3. Weiming Lake (D) in the centre-north of the campus is a great place for an evening stroll – or somewhere to walk when one needs to think reflectively away from the office and the oppression of e-mails!  The blossom was really beautiful in spring, but I imagine that the cool of the lake makes it an equally pleasant place to escape in the heat of the summer as well.  Just to the west lies the university museum and art gallery, which are well worth a visit.
  4. There is a subway/metro/underground station just outside the East Gate  – known as East Gate of Peking University (at E on the map).  This is on Line 4 and provides ready access into the centre of the city, and all of the various tourist sites that can be visited.  It is best to buy a transport card (blue in colour), which can then readily be topped up.  Single journeys across the city cost a mere RMB 2, and the card must be swiped across the entrance/exit scanners when entering and leaving.  There are also airport style bag checking devices for scanning all bags being taken into the stations.  The underground system is excellent, safe and easy to use – with station names written in Chinese and English, and clear announcements warning in advance of the next station at which the train is due to arrive.  It takes about an hour to get to the airport by underground (lines 4 and 10 costing RMB 2) and then the airport express (costing RMB 25) – and unless you have a lot of baggage this is the easiest way to get there.
  5. Cash: contrary to what I was told on arrival, the cashpoint/ATM machines on campus do work with foreign cards (at least they did with my Visa Debit card), and so getting cash is simple. I tended to use the ones by H on the map (next to the Post Office)
  6. Accommodation: I was fortunate enough to stay in the university’s Chiatai International Centre (illustrated; part of the Shao Yuan complex at F on the map), which provides perfectly comfortable, clean accommodation, with a refrigerator, shower/bath, kettle and TV (you soon get to enjoy CCTV’s English language broadcast).  The hot water can be a bit hit and miss, but I generally found that it was fine at around 21.38 in the evenings.  The Centre gets very booked up well in advance, so if you plan to stay here do make sure that your hosts get you booked in.  It is by no means a modern 5* hotel, but I have really come to feel that it is home, and the staff are all incredibly kind and helpful.  There is an expensive restaurant and café on the ground floor (remember that in China this is known as the first floor). The one drawback is that not all of the US students staying there have yet acquired their hosts’ respect for other people’s ears!
  7. Internet access is generally good across campus.  The PKU wi-fi system works well (although you do need to get an appropriate username and password from the IT Services Department), and there is Ethernet connectivity at the Chiatai International Centre.  Skype (even video) works fine, and is a great way of keeping in touch with family and friends.
  8. Supermarkets: there are two main supermarkets on campus, with the nearest to Shao Yuan being Wu-Mei (G on map – illustrated; the other, slightly more modern and cleaner looking is at H, which has several cashpoint machines nearby). Although quite small, Wu-Mei provides most things one might want, including: bread, sliced cheese, cashew nuts, dried fruit, yoghurt, water, beer, fruit juice and wine. So, when you cannot manage the same basic sorts of Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and just need to have a cheese sandwich or fruit yoghurt for breakfast, this is the place to go. You can also buy the ubiquitous large flasks there for filling with boiling water and using to top up your tea cup throughout the day.  Just at the top of the stairs going down into Wu-Mei there is a small stall selling SIM cards and top-ups, and this is the best place to purchase your mobile connectivity.
  9. ‘Western’ food.  Should you want a relatively quiet and peaceful place to eat, apart from the university canteens, try the Café of Luck (I on map – illustrated), which serves a range of dishes such as steak and rice, salads, and pizzas (and even if you don’t speak fluent Chinese you can always point to the pictures), as well as cold beer – I always opted for the Tsingtao (although when that was not available the Yanjing was also not bad). Hidden away under the Centennial Hall there is also a small café called Paradis (see J on map) where it is possible to find reasonable coffee and capuccino – remember that China is a tea drinking country, and this is about the only place on campus where reasonable coffee is to be found – for that moment, when you are desperate for that wonderful bitter flavour, and the kick to the body’s energy system.
  10. Remember to walk on the right! Traffic in Beijing travels on the right – and this is also true (generally) of pedestrians.  So, when it gets crowded on campus, with thousands of people and hundreds of bicycles rushing to and from lectures, you will find it easier to ‘go with the flow’ if you walk on the right side.  And, do watch out for the silent electric scooters – they travel much more quickly than bicycles, and I am not quite sure why I have seen so few accidents!

Colleagues and students at the campus have gone out of their way to show us immense hospitality.  If ever in doubt, do ask your hosts for advice – be it restaurants, places to visit, the best bus to take to an obscure part of town – anything!  Many will go out of their way to take you where you want to go themselves, despite their busy schedules.  They will also relish the opportunity to practise their English!  Enjoy Beida – it is a great place to teach, think and do research.

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Student Spring Trip to the Miyun area


Last weekend (23rd-24th April), I was invited to join students from the Graduate School of Education at Peking University on their spring trip to the area around Miyun, about 100 kilometres to the north-east of Beijing.  It was an amazing experience, and a real opportunity not only to visit places that I would never otherwise have seen, but also a chance to learn more about student life in China.

We began at Chateau Changyu – a winery built to look like a French château, with a hotel complex in the form of a French-style village, replete with church, nearby.  I was amazed by the scale of the enterprise, as well as the rather surreal experience of visiting somewhere that was meant to be like France, but was very definitely not.  The nearest I came to feeling ‘at home’ was touching and smelling the Seguin Moreau barrels in the cellar! The wines were most certainly not cheap, with the most expensive one I could see being priced at around £1000!  They also had a fascinating wine museum that told the history of the company from its roots in the 19th century to the present day.  My favourite moment was when I came across a banner with the English translation “Oak barrel – Tim fragrance of wines”!

After spending a couple of hours walking around the winery and estate, we then headed northwards to the little village of Shitanglu, which describes itself as Beijing’s most beautiful village.  This is a place that is developing rural tourism on a considerable scale, with lots of properties having smart new buildings constructed to host visitors.  Eighty of us were dispersed into a couple of these properties, each of which had a series of rooms surrounding a central courtyard. Kindly, or perhaps because they did not want to suffer my snoring, they felt that I should not share one of the large beds where they were sleeping, and I was given the privilege of having my own room.  After dinner, we walked down to a nearby lake at dusk, and my training as a geographer with an eye for place came in handy as we found our way back beneath the startlit sky to our rooms.  And then the card games and mahjong began!

The next morning we headed off for the Taoyuan Immortals’ Valley, where I was promised a walk.  What a walk it turned out to be!  All in all, we spent about five hours climbing up to the head of a ravine, and then coming back along a ridge and very steep, slippery descent.  Alongside waterfalls, beautiful areas of woodland, steep cliffs etched by ancient rivers, and small lakes, I was amazed to find patches of snow and ice still surviving from the winter.  We had our picnic lunches at the summit, and the views stretched away across the valley and lakes towards range upon range of mountains in the far distance.

It was a really excellent trip, and I’m most grateful to all the students who made me feel so welcome!

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